What are the biggest things to watch for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in their fourth straight NBA Finals matchup? How can Cleveland pull the upset?
Our NBA experts answer the big questions heading into the Finals.
1. What’s the most important thing to watch for the Cavaliers in the Finals?
Amin Elhassan, ESPN.com: Can the Cavs’ defense be more consistent? Glass half-full: A defense that was bottom-two in the NBA during the regular season managed to be about league average in the postseason, allowing 105.9 points per 100 possessions. Glass half-empty: That defensive rating comes with a lot of variance, with Cleveland posting six games in which it allowed more than 110 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs have to find a way to be more disciplined and vigilant consistently throughout 48 minutes against a Warriors team that doesn’t need much daylight to blow a game wide-open.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Their 3-point shooting. They made more than 10 3-pointers only once in the series with the Celtics, another reason their victory was so impressive. They’re going to need more offense to have a slight chance in this series.
Royce Young, ESPN.com: LeBron’s fuel gauge. Assuming he’s able to take these few days to gas up the tank again, how far can he push it once the cargo he’s carrying starts to drain him? The Celtics had some scrappy defenders, but the Warriors can throw a few looks at LeBron and keep their options fresh.
André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: We know what to expect from LeBron. The major requirements for this to be a series, in addition to LeBron’s brilliance, are Kevin Love playing at an All-NBA level and “the others” miraculously developing into something stronger than the sum of their parts. The latter is the biggest key, because for as much as they’ve been maligned, the Cavs’ role players finding an unexpected level and knocking down shots at their best clip while physically defending the Dubs is the only chance for this Finals to be remotely competitive.
Jeremias Engelmann, ESPN Insider: Can LeBron’s supporting cast score on a consistent basis? In two of their three playoff series, no Cav other than LeBron scored more than 12.5 points per game. That kind of performance might get you through the East — although with two Game 7s it was probably a little too close for comfort — but it won’t be enough to win a title against this historic Warriors team. Kevin Love (if healthy) and JR Smith, both under 50.5 percent true shooting, need to step up their games.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: How engaged LeBron can be defensively. When James is able to give something approaching maximum effort at that end of the court — which usually happens when teammates can help share the load offensively — Cleveland can be surprisingly stout for a defense that ranked 29th in defensive rating during the regular season, particularly with Jeff Green at power forward in place of Love. But all too often, LeBron is conserving energy on defense because of everything he’s asked to do on offense.
2. What’s the most important thing to watch for the Warriors in the Finals?
Snellings: Injury and suspension. If all four of the Warriors’ All-Stars play every game, it’s unlikely the Cavs can hurt them.
Pelton: Whether they can find a consistent fifth player alongside their stars. Ideally, that would be a healthy Andre Iguodala, but it remains unclear when Iguodala will be able to return to the lineup. In his absence, we’ve seen Steve Kerr rotate Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney, Shaun Livingston and Nick Young in that spot. None offers the combination of floor spacing and defense that makes Iguodala an ideal part of the Hamptons 5.
Windhorst: The fifth man. Who will Steve Kerr use as his fifth starter, especially if Iguodala remains out for a bit? What he does will have an effect on Love. If Kerr goes big and stays with Looney, Love can play. If he goes small with Young or the Hamptons 5 once Iguodala is back, it’s hard for the Cavs to play Love and Tristan Thompson.
Elhassan: Can they stay engaged and motivated enough? It has been a theme all year long. The Warriors are bored with the lack of competition, and Kerr has tried every trick and gambit to keep this team focused, including letting the players coach the team! In the postseason, we’ve seen this apathy manifest itself with dominant performances followed by listless losses. The length of this series is going to be directly correlated to just how much the Warriors feel like giving a damn.
Young: Health. The Warriors could certainly use Iguodala back to help on LeBron, but barring any other significant injury elsewhere, they should be fine. Still, it can all turn quickly with the pull of a muscle or roll of an ankle — as the Warriors-Rockets series proved.
Engelmann: Iguodala’s injury is a big question mark for them. If the 2015 Finals MVP cannot play — he just got a second opinion on his injured left knee — the Warriors are down an elite wing defender they could have thrown at LeBron. Looney and Bell, while good defenders, lack the experience to defend LeBron well, while Draymond Green is most effective as a help defender.
3. If the Cavs win, that means …
Pelton: LeBron James surely had a superlative Finals — another superlative Finals. I think LeBron was the most valuable player in the first two incarnations of this series (2015 in defeat, and 2016, when he led the Cavaliers back from down 3-1). It’s unlikely Cleveland could win this series without James playing the same role again.
Windhorst: A big party in Cleveland and LeBron is probably assured to remain. But they’re big underdogs, and LeBron’s legacy in Cleveland and beyond is already secure.
Young: LeBron has painted his masterpiece. It will be his Mona Lisa, the perfect punctuation to the greatest individual postseason run of all time. If the Cavs win, LeBron adds the best bullet point to his résumé yet, and despite fewer total titles against his fellow GOAT peers, he has the best championship of anybody.
Engelmann: Probably that LeBron has surpassed Michael Jordan as the best player ever. Jordan still has more titles and will always have the superior Finals win-loss percentage, but he also benefited from having significantly stronger supporting casts that included Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman. And while Jordan faced strong teams on his way to six titles — four times his Finals opponents won 60-plus games — none of them featured as much talent as this Warriors team.
Snellings: That something remarkable and mind-blowing has happened. But also that either the Dubs were decimated by injuries or the other Cavs have pulled a rope-a-dope on the entire NBA that surpasses what Muhammad Ali did to George Foreman in Zaire. With what we’ve seen of these two teams, there is nothing that LeBron can do to lift this supporting cast (as it has been playing) to a win. Thus, a Cavs win means something major has happened to change the dynamic.
Elhassan: The Warriors have ceased to give a damn, a key Warriors injury/suspension has occurred and LeBron gets the supporting-cast shooting he got in the Raptors series.
4. If the Warriors win, that means …
Young: Inevitably reigns. The Warriors were assembled to win ’em all, and that’s what they’re on the warpath to do. The Rockets presented the best chance to derail that, but once luck boosted Golden State once again with Chris Paul’s injury, it became a matter of when, not if.
Windhorst: They’re a legitimate dynasty, and it’ll probably be quite satisfying, as this has been the most tumultuous season in their run. They are expected to win and have been for a long time. They’re used to that pressure.
Snellings: Water is still wet, the sky is still blue and Bruce Leroy still beats Sho’nuff only in the movies.
Pelton: Things played out as expected! It also means, with back-to-back titles and three in four years, Golden State would take its place among the NBA’s dynasties.
Elhassan: They’ve “respected the game” with their effort and engagement levels.
Engelmann: The league should look harder into measures to discourage superteams such as these Warriors. Part of what makes sports so much fun is unpredictability. If the Warriors enter the season as favorites and also end up winning the title (almost) every year, then the NBA runs the risk of becoming boring. One way to potentially combat this would be to increase the luxury and/or repeater tax.
5. Who wins the series, and in how many games?
Engelmann: Warriors in 7. Vegas bookmakers are expecting the series to be over quickly — they favor the Warriors by 11 points in Game 1, and give the Cavs only a 13 percent chance to win it all — but I’m assuming LeBron will continue to play like a superhuman and carry this Cavs team to at least a couple of wins.
Elhassan: Warriors in 5. I’m spotting the Cavs one game because I have no confidence in Golden State’s ability to take its opponent seriously and you have to believe LeBron’s reliable all-around dominance will be accompanied at least once with some hot 3-point shooting from his teammates.
Young: Warriors in 5. Most people are going to feel the same way: Out of sheer respect for LeBron, I’ll say the Cavs get a game. But there’s just too much to withstand on the other side, and unless someone has an out-of-body experience in the Finals — looking at you, JR — the Cavs simply can’t keep up.
Snellings: I’d absolutely love to see Love throw back to his Minnesota days (and while we’re at it, have Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood show up as well). It’d be great to see the Cavs play physical, stifling team defense and push the Warriors back on their heels. It’d be wonderful to see LeBron put together such a transcendent NBA Finals that even Stephen A. Smith decides he’s OK with the LeBron/Jordan comparisons. That’d be ultra-exciting to see. But realistically, where we stand now? Warriors in 5.
Windhorst: I don’t make predictions. But I’m on record as saying when healthy, the Warriors have the best lineup of all time. I never doubted they’d be here, even at halftimes of Game 6 and 7 against Houston.
Pelton: Warriors in 5. Whether it’s due to hot Cavaliers shooting, LeBron’s singular greatness or Golden State’s focus waning, I think Cleveland will most likely win a game in this series, but no more — a second consecutive gentleman’s sweep between these two teams.